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All over Miami-Dade County the teachers union is quietly wooing parents and teachers with promises that it will open its own high-performing charter schools. In making this intriguing and controversial move, the United Teachers of Dade (UTD) leadership is not so much visionary as it is practical.
They see who's in control in Tallahassee and in Washington, D.C. The Republican agenda has steadily pushed toward decentralization and privatization of many public services, especially education. In Florida this has meant private-school vouchers for the parents of children in failing public schools -- a direct threat to the power of the union since private schools rarely hire union members and are not held to the same standards of accountability. "Charters are our answer to that," explains Tom Gammon, UTD's point man on its charter-school initiatives.
UTD got the go-ahead from the school board last December to open nine large charter schools in the next couple of years, through a partnership with Edison Schools, Inc., the 800-pound gorilla of management companies. But why stop there? The union signed a separate agreement with Chancellor Academies to attempt to convert up to ten public schools to charter schools. Under state law this can be done if more than half the parents and teachers at those schools vote for it.
Assuming all these plans come to fruition, in just a few years UTD could be running nineteen schools, with between 15,000 to 20,000 students. In effect it would look a lot like a mini-educational empire springing up within Miami-Dade County, a concept that bothers the hell out of some district insiders. "They are almost becoming a separate little school district," predicts one observer. "It's almost like a war brewing." Not war -- healthy competition, counters UTD spokeswoman Annette Katz. "We're not trying to trade one large elephant for a large hippopotamus," she emphasizes. "We are very aware that that is something to be concerned about."
Another troubling aspect: Suddenly one of the largest labor unions in South Florida will find itself in the odd position of also being the boss of the people for whom it regularly negotiates wages and benefits. How will UTD negotiate when it is sitting on both sides of the table? What about other areas of the labor-to-management relationship? Will the union know how to handle it when one of its teachers files a grievance with the union against one of the administrators in a union-run school? Gammon admits that UTD hasn't yet found a perfect answer for all the issues this unique arrangement raises. "There will be a lot of interesting questions," he understates.
Even more interesting will be the long-term relationship between UTD and Edison, a company that runs more than 100 schools around the nation. Make no mistake, Edison is in this for the money. So much so that it sells stock to investors on the promise that it can squeeze a tidy profit out of public dollars by more efficiently managing schools. Yet so far the company has operated many millions in the red for several years. New York financial columnist Christopher Byron argued in April that Edison's fortune is now largely determined by the vagaries of an unpredictable market. Byron speculated in the New York Observer that as the economy slows down, Edison's investors will demand the company cut costs -- and corners -- in its schools.
At the least Edison's reliance on economies of scale to drive its potential profitability means that the nine schools it plans to build in Miami-Dade won't be anything like today's small, intimate operations favored by parents. Each of the seven elementary schools is approved for up to 1100 students. The two middle schools could hold up to 1600 students apiece. But more troubling to the American Federation of Teachers is Edison's academic record at its 113 schools, which the AFT says is a mixed bag of good and poor results. AFT spokeswoman Janet Bass points out that Edison has run Henry E.S. Reeves Elementary in Northwest Miami-Dade for four years, yet the student performance at the D-rated school hardly been stellar (see "A Lesson in Mismanagement," May 20, 1999). "Edison doesn't have a perfect track record, far from it," Bass argues. "[UTD] will have to be careful."
The political triangle formed by UTD, Chancellor Academies, and the school district marks another change on the local charter-school scene. Thus far the district has been generally supportive of charter schools, seeing them as a way to help relieve overcrowding in the system. But converting an existing public school into a charter school, as UTD and Chancellor plan to do, would actually slightly shrink the system's bureaucracy, with its attendant money and power. And what would it say about the ability of those bureaucrats if the union, aided by several of the school district's own former top managers, actually produces a better-educated child at the same or lower cost? Recognizing this fear, the union is tiptoeing in. Only one or two elementary schools are targeted for conversion by the fall of 2002, if parents and teachers agree to it.
The take-home message is not that charter schools are bad. Like most traditional schools, each is as good as the people running them, which is why it is important to make sure they deliver the results they promise. In several cases around Miami-Dade County, it's clear that is happening.